/ 24 April 2007

Upwardly mobile

Since the ugly days of wap, phones have got a lot smarter and more efficient at accessing the web.

Cellphone screens are getting bigger and more colourful. Screen resolutions are edging higher and internet connections becoming faster. It’s become easier to connect to the internet than ever before via your cellphone. Most cellphones now come with internet settings preset by the networks, so a user doesn’t have to go through the often complicated process of setting it up. And I’m not talking about the high-end, fancy phones here – most mid-range phones come with internet and good screens these days.

What does this mean for the media company? It means that the cellphone is the next big thing. In Japan we know that more people access the internet via their cellphones than via their PCs. We also know that cellphone penetration in South Africa is high – far higher than PC penetration. Judging by the overnight success of MXIT, the popular instant messaging and content application, we know that South Africans – particularly young South Africans – are increasingly using their phones to do things other than phone.

In fact, if you consider that cellphone penetration is higher than fixed-line penetration throughout the whole of Africa, it’s not hard to see that mobile phones will be the platform of the future for media companies wanting to spread their content into the continent. You don’t need to be a Microsoft rocket scientist to work out that the next big growth area for internet in this country and probably Africa is going to be via mobile phones.

Most major websites have mobile editions of their sites, although at this stage they are under-utilised, under-promoted and generally haven’t hit the big time yet. These mobile sites are specifically designed for narrow mobile screens, typically to be viewed on a range of platforms and browsers.

For PCs there is essentially one dominant internet browser and a strong set of standards, but in the mobile world you need a pretty simple, basic site to accommodate the range of screen sizes, platforms and browsers.

A business model is starting to emerge. Some news sites have started selling advertising on their mobile editions. This could happen with a click that sends an email or an SMS for a callback from the advertiser. Some websites are charging for access to their content, betting on the fact that the reader is less resistant to paying for content on their phone than on the general internet.

Media companies also have a fight on their hands. The cellphone networks have started offering their own mobile content portals to users. Users are not excluded from surfing outside these portals, but are strongly guided to these portals via dedicated buttons, icons and bookmarks in the phone.

In many ways this could be a new area of domination and monopoly, much like the way Microsoft has been accused of dominating the operating system by pushing its software products to the exclusion of others. As this arena gets more serious I predict the competition commission may investigate.

The interest in mobile represents a new kind of thinking among media companies in the digital era. Cellphones are just one area where media companies aim to spread their content. The modern media company is all about disseminating its content in as many formats and on as many platforms and devices as possible – from your ipod, cellphone, TV, Playstation, to the internet-connected panel all our future cars will have. No digital device with an internet connection will be safe.

Matthew Buckland is publisher of Mail & Guardian Online. Email him at [email protected]